Been in the Struggle, by Regina Shands Stoltzfus and Tobin Miller Shearer

Robert A. Segal is unconvinced by an argument about the depth of religious racism

December 13, 2021
Black Lives Matter protest
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Been in the Struggle, by two American scholars of religion, is largely autobiographical. Our authors, who remind us on every page that she is Black and he is White, recount their actual experiences of fighting racism, and racism of a single kind: anti-Black racism. They do note other brands of prejudice, such as that against gays. But their near exclusive focus is on racial prejudice, and they have a single bold argument to make: that antiblackness is…what it means to be American”.

A key issue is what the authors mean by race. It is more than skin colour, they make clear.

It is a whole network of assumptions about differences in personality, feelings and behaviour. But their case would have been abetted by some attention to the history of racism and not just to their experience of it. In, especially, the German-speaking world of the 19th century, the study of race sought to be scientific. Not only were there divisions into races, such as Indo-European and Semitic, but character, or personality, was deemed racial, which means genetic. The aim was to show that, in today’s terms, nurture was really nature.

To take the best-known case, supposedly Jewish traits such as an obsession with money were deemed to be the expression of biology. Shylock was born an avaricious moneylender and did not become one because of the limited vocations permitted to Jews. An equivalent in anti-Black racism would be, to use one of the authors’ own examples, the assumption that Black people are disproportionately born criminals.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus and Tobin Miller Shearer denounce racism more than account for it. They do not consider the scientific rebuttal of racism – above all, by the German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas. He argued that much of culture comes from nurture, not nature. But even he scarcely argued, as is the trend today, that there is really just nurture, as our authors assume.

Anti-Black racism is for the authors so deep in the White psyche, including that of Shearer, that even recognising it is hard to do. Still, it is not for them repressed, as sexuality is for Freud. Yet only formal training, of the kind offered by the authors, works. Goodwill is not enough.

As vague as Stoltzfus and Shearer are on race, they are even vaguer on spirituality. The trend today is to distinguish between formal, institutionalised religion and less organised, more spontaneous spirituality. But the authors refer to institutionalised forms of religion, such as their own Mennonite church, and so do not make use of this useful current distinction.

In any event, they see religion or spirituality as perpetuating anti-Black racism. But what of the leaders of the American civil rights movement, not least the Reverend Martin Luther King? What of President Barack Obama? Were they racists?

Overall, Been in the Struggle consists of heartfelt opposition to anti-Black racism rather than a rigorous analysis of it.

Robert A. Segal is sixth century chair in religious studies at the University of Aberdeen and professorial research fellow at the University of Vienna. He is also the author of Myth Analyzed (2021) and editor of The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion (second edition, 2021).


Been in the Struggle: Pursuing an Antiracist Spirituality
By Regina Shands Stoltzfus and Tobin Miller Shearer
Herald Press, 244pp, £14.60
ISBN 9781513809434
Published 2 November 2021

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Analysis gets lost on altar of anger

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